U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson, a cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and onetime Morrison & Foerster partner, faces the possibility of felony hit-and-run charges after being involved in a pair of car accidents over the weekend in Southern California.
A seizure of some kind may have been to blame for the fender benders, according to a Commerce Department spokeswoman who confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that Bryson was involved in the accidents. The 68-year-old Bryson cooperated with detectives, who do not believe that alcohol and drugs played a part in the accidents.
The crashes—which occurred Saturday afternoon in the Los Angeles County cities of San Gabriel and Rosemead—came on Bryson’s personal time while he driving his own Lexus. Two of the three people in the first car Bryson allegedly struck were treated by paramedics after complaining of pain, according to a report by The Associated Press, which notes that a couple involved in the second crash also complained of pain but declined medical assistance. Bryson, meanwhile, was rendered unconscious. While police cited him for felony hit-and-run, the local district attorney’s office will make the ultimate decision about what charges, if any, will be brought, according to CBS News.
“[Bryson] was taken to the hospital for examination and remained overnight for observation,” Commerce Department director of public affairs Jennifer Friedman said in a statement distributed to reporters. “He was released and has returned to Washington. The investigation is ongoing. Secretary Bryson has no public events scheduled for today.”
President Barack Obama nominated Bryson a little over a year ago to succeed Gary Locke as commerce secretary. Locke, a former partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, currently serves as the U.S. ambassador to China.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Bryson as commerce secretary by a 74-to-26 vote last October. Early in the president’s term, Bryson—who spent 18 years as head of energy company Edison International, prior to entering public service—was seen as a candidate to become Energy Secretary—a cabinet post that ultimately went to Steven Chu, the older brother of Irell & Manella litigation practice chair Morgan Chu.
Bryson, who graduated from Yale Law School in 1969 and cofounded the NRDC the following year, worked at MoFo before joining Edison as its senior vice president for legal and financial affairs in 1984. He was named chairman and CEO of the Rosemead-based company in 1990 and served in that role until his retirement in 2008. Bryson joined private equity giant KKR as a senior adviser that same year, and became chairman of the board of directors for BrightSource Energy in 2010.
Bryson’s ties to BrightSource, an Oakland-based solar power provider, received renewed scrutiny last fall following the failure of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra. The Obama administration continues to face a political firestorm over its support for a $535 million Energy Department loan to Solyndra, and the company’s descent into bankruptcy brought attention to a $1.6 billion federal loan for a Southern California renewable energy project backed by BrightSource.
The $1.6 billion federal loan represented the largest grant for a solar energy project made in connection with the Obama administration’s stimulus package, and caused BrightSource to bolster its lobbying efforts by hiring a former staffer to Vice President Joe Biden, according to a recent report by The Wall Street Journal. (MoFo advised the Energy Department with regard to the loan for the BrightSource-backed Ivanpah solar facility in the Mojave Desert.)
In April, BrightSource withdrew plans for a $180 million initial public offering, citing unfavorable market conditions and signaling continuing concerns about the profitability of solar power companies. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom advised underwriters on the aborted offering, while Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe represented BrightSource. (The company’s general counsel, Daniel Judge, once worked at Orrick.)
Besides his stints at MoFo and as chairman of the BrightSource board, Bryson has also served on the boards of The Walt Disney Company and Boeing. An ABC News affiliate in San Gabriel, California, where one of the crashes occurred, reports that the commerce secretary could have preexisting conditions that make him susceptible to seizures, citing one anonymous witness who saw Bryson faint at a Boeing board meeting four years ago.